WATCHING Ryan Grant giving the British and Irish Lions scrum a lift yesterday in Melbourne and pushing himself into Test contention 12 years on from Scotland’s last Test-starting Lion, Tom Smith, sent a serious message to Scottish rugby.
The prop’s fine display came just days after hooker Fraser Brown stepped on to the pitch at Loftus Versfeld as the tenth uncapped player to play for Scotland on their tour, but the first Scottish-bred cap in the professional era to do so before starting a game at pro level. The message there was the same: stop shutting doors on players with talent.
Those two individuals were discarded by Edinburgh. Grant was sent to Edinburgh after the Borders closed, but played twice in two years because the coach then, Andy Robinson, did not rate him highly, and was released to Glasgow only because they needed cover.
Once given his chance to play because of injuries to others, he developed into a player that could not be left out; a bit like his Test career over the past year, and perhaps now his Lions journey. The former soldier was the one Scot that commentators across the British Isles and Ireland agreed prior to the tour had been wrongly omitted.
Brown suffered shoulder and neck injuries while playing for Scotland under-20s and then Edinburgh, albeit in training because he never started for the pro side. Michael Bradley was head coach when he was released two years ago, along with another genuine talent, Alex Blair, as both had injuries. Where was the perseverance with talent?
Brown took time out of the game but returned when he noticed that his Merchiston Castle teacher Mark Appleson was coaching Heriot’s, called him when bored and duly became a leading light in the Heriot’s back row. Gregor Townsend turned to him last season during a front row crisis and, despite just 40-odd minutes of pro rugby, Townsend handed him a year’s contract last month. Fully recovered from injury, he then finds himself in South Africa as an injury replacement and wins a Test cap.
“It was a bit unbelievable,” he admitted, with some understatement. “It’s what everyone dreams about growing up. You always want to play for your country. I always wanted to play for Scotland and it’s quite a nice feeling standing here knowing that I’ve been capped. Injuries happen and they’re awful for the people who get injured but, at the same time, they open doors for other people, and sometimes you just have to ride the wave.
“I know more than most that sometimes you can get in a rut of injuries and it’s difficult to break out, but you’re always hoping that eventually your time will come and you will get a break. I got a break at the start of the season when Pat [MacArthur] and Dougie [Hall] picked up little injuries, which let me in for a shot at Glasgow, and then I had a break getting on tour, and I don’t think ‘what am I doing here?’ You just think ‘right, I’m here to do something’.”
Having watched Brown as a teenager, I had little doubt that he had the skills, physical and mental, to go far. As I felt with Grant and others like Blair and Rory Hutton, stand-offs who need the refinement that comes with experience, but who possess more innate talent than several No 10s over the past decade – the feints, the deception, the ambition – the skills Scots coaches have frequently bemoaned lacking at pro and Test level.
Alex Dunbar, a key tour player, was on the verge of being released by Glasgow last year when injury to Graeme Morrison earned him the game-time to force a change of heart in Warriors coach Sean Lineen.
Three more tour performers, Alasdair Strokosch, Alasdair Dickinson and Lawson – as well as his namesake Rory Lawson – left Scottish rugby uncapped because they were down the ladder and not rated highly at the time by coaches here.
Greig Laidlaw has been a cornerstone of the Scotland team’s improvement over the past year, yet only after he stuck it out at Edinburgh through nearly five years as a fringe player, and when, at 26, he was finally asked to start for Scotland, it was in a position he hadn’t played since his teenage days. So not only has he proved that he was good enough to play scrum-half for Scotland, but had sufficient skills to play stand-off too, despite not enjoying the pro rugby exposure of his English, Welsh, Irish and southern hemisphere peers aged 19-24.
This South Africa tour has enabled more to prove their worth to Scotland, notably Tim Swinson, Tommy Seymour, Peter Murchie and Brown, in Tests and training. Yet few of the ten new caps would have been involved had it not been for the Lions tour and injuries. This is not a criticism of Scottish coaches, as coaches at every level in every sport have to make calls, and some they get it right and others they don’t. But they can only go on what they see, and that is the problem in Scottish rugby – the opportunity to see players sufficiently to make the decision more accurate than merely optimistic are far too slim.
Inevitably, some young talents will fail to measure up to pro rugby, but, in a country with paltry rugby resources, Scotland cannot afford a raft of ‘lost boys’.
So, this is a message to the SRU, custodians of the game and responsible for its pathways, from CEO Mark Dodson to the board, new president Donald Macleod to the Scottish Rugby Council, and coaches at all levels. We will continue to hold Dodson to account on his ability to make in-roads to finding investment for more teams with no improvement there on predecessor Gordon McKie, ironically now leading a consortium of businessmen in a takeover bid for Heart of Midlothian FC.
But, until the pro team base is widened, we must seek more creative ways to hold on to and develop Scottish talent. It is a full 18 years since professionalism, yet Scotland has lost players with the ability to play for Scotland, rediscovered ones like Brown only through mishaps and will be hailing one this weekend as the latest Lions great who few had any time for just four years ago.